Joe Biden jumps the gun on same-sex marriage equality

Vice-President gives unequivocal backing to gay rights ... before his office steps in

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Gay rights advocates in the US are once again caught between delight and dismay as they struggle to make sense of Vice-President Joe Biden offering what seemed like a candid endorsement of same-sex marriage, only to have the significance of his words instantly downplayed by his aides.

They are also trying to decipher whether Mr Biden was speaking at the weekend as a surrogate for President Barack Obama – who has so far infuriated supporters in the gay community by failing to explicitly support gay marriage – or if instead he was speaking off-script, something he is apt to do.

"Look. I am Vice-President of the United States of America," Mr Biden told NBC News. "The President sets the policy." That caveat dispensed with, he went on: "I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual men and women marrying are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties. And quite frankly, I don't see much of a distinction beyond that."

Today, voters in North Carolina are expected to approve a measure to revise the state's constitution to rule out the legalisation of gay marriage. "Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognised," it will say, meaning that even civil unions for gays will not be tolerated.

Gay marriage also cleaves the country geographically. Today's ballot will bring North Carolina into line with every other state in the Old South with same-sex marriage bans in their constitutions. Yet elsewhere the drift is in the other direction; eight states, including the District of Columbia, now offer full marriage rights to homosexuals.

Mr Obama is on the record opposing the ban in North Carolina and a similar effort under way in Minnesota. But the ultimate prize for the gay rights movement is recognition of same-sex marriage at a national level.

That Mr Obama continues to pussy-foot on the issue – he has said only that his position is "evolving" – is not especially surprising. His re-election strategy counts on winning the support of groups such as Hispanics and independents in swing states like Virginia and Pennsylvania that may not be open to gay marriage.

A new Gallup poll of 12 battleground states in Mr Obama's forthcoming re-election battle demonstrated why the President is not in a position to take risks. It showed him narrowly beating the Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney by 47 per cent to 45 per cent, which is well within the margin of error.

The row-back on Mr Biden's words came swiftly. "The Vice-President was saying what the President has said previously – that committed and loving same-sex couples deserve the same rights and protections enjoyed by all Americans and that we oppose any effort to roll back those rights," said a statement issued by his office.

It is the kind of after-the-fact parsing that gay rights campaigners find so frustrating. "You can see it like teasing," noted Kevin Cathcart, the executive director of Lambda Legal.